Art, Cristobal Rojas, and tuberculosis: a Latin American cultural experience

Maria S. Landaeta, Aldo L. Schenone, Gregory W. Rutecki

(Spring 2016)

portrait of Cristobal Rojas
Fig. 1: Self portrait by Rojas, (1887) [public domain]

Tuberculosis, the “captain of all these men of death,” has devastated diverse societies for thousands of years. How are experiences related to this unforgiving and seemingly insatiable disease made unique by their cultural contexts? The visual arts provide a record of this disease as it relates to specific cultures. Venezuelan artist Cristóbal Rojas Poleo (1858-1890) captured the depth of familial pain caused by consumption, which cut short his own life. While surrounded by the shadow of death Rojas painted a cultural response to tuberculosis, portraying familial intimacy, nurturing care, and shared faith—all themes specific to Latin America. More than a century later, Rojas’ response to his illness seem to transcend his era and exemplify timeless aspects of Latino culture.

 

Life of the Artist

Cristóbal Rojas was born in Cúa, Venezuela in 1858. According to Alfredo Boulton, his inclination toward art may have been influenced by his grandfather, a sculptor. His father, a physician, also liked to paint.1 However, Cristóbal’s early exposure to art was soon replaced by overwhelming responsibilities. “After his father’s untimely death in 1870, young Cristóbal, twelve years old, became the new head of a financially struggling family.”1-3 He was following a tradition customary in Latin American families which requires the eldest male to accept the mantle of responsibility after the father dies.4 In order to support his relatives, Rojas worked at a tobacco factory.1 However, art would reappear in a most unexpected way. As Barbay explains, “In 1878 an earthquake destroyed Rojas’ home, a tragedy that led to his paintings of the ruins in Cúa.”1 The works betray his untrained hand and lack perspective. However, there is attention to detail, use of surrounding natural elements, and a preference for coloring as opposed to delineation.1 The complete artist awaited proper training.

Art scholars search for Rojas’ artistic muses amidst his myriad misfortunes: a father’s early death, earthquakes, poverty, and tuberculosis.1 Germane to any critique of his art, however, others question his identity as a Latin American artist.1 Most of Rojas’ opuses emanated from Paris, his city of residence and home to his teacher for much of his career.1 Did he retain his Latin American identity as an artist or was he transformed into a French master? This study will demonstrate that Rojas infused his oeuvres with Latin American culture and that he remained a Latino artist in France. The stamps of his cultural identity were his portrayals of his Catholic faith and commitment to family.

 

Religion in Latino Culture

Latino culture is an elegant blend of indigenous peoples, African slaves, and Europeans, predominantly from Spain and Portugal. The colonization of Latin America was dominated by the Catholic Church. Inhabitants under the crown—regardless of earlier religion—were coerced to adopt Catholicism.5 Even after Simon Bolivar and South American independence, the Catholic faith continued to be embraced in Latin America. As Sigmond explains,

By the twentieth century, most countries had included guarantees of religious freedom in their constitutions, but legal and/or constitutional provisions still recognized the special position of Catholicism as the national religion. In a few cases, such as Argentina and Venezuela, state support was still provided to the Catholic Church.”5

The visible evidence of Catholicism in Latino culture surfaces in the sacraments administered by priests. During the nineteenth century, these sacraments were essential to the faith of Latino families. According to Venezuelan parish records, the country had 1,899,876 registered certifications of sacrament used between 1577 and 1995.6.Moreover, priests often made private visits to families caring for ill relatives. Persons suffering from tuberculosis remained at home with their family. Priestly visits offered the sacraments of baptism, communion, confession, and finally, the anointing of the sick, a final blessing before death.

 

The Family: Unbreakable Bonds among Latin Americans

Family is fundamental to Latin American culture. A study from the University of Nebraska describes the familial bond as a strength of the culture. Latin American families are a source of unity and members share lifetime loyalty.7 Family in Latin America is a cultural staple; the unit represents the nurture of long-term physical and psychological ties through the commitment of interdependence.8 Moreover, “in the Latin American family, when children reach adulthood, family continues to be a source of financial, instrumental and emotional support.”9 If Rojas were truly a Latino artist, his oeuvre would resonate with the Catholic faith and the endurance of a family’s love during times of trial.

 

Cristóbal Rojas: A Quintessential Latin American

The Misery by Rojas
Fig. 2: The Misery by Rojas (1886) [public domain]

The modernist tendencies of President Guzman Blanco (Rojas’ contemporary) and of Rojas’ ambitions established Venezuelan painting at the Exposition of 1883.1 A cultural ceremony celebrating the centennial of Simon Bolivar’s birth was perhaps the most important holiday for Blanco’s government. Though he was untrained, Rojas submitted his art along with recognized artists such as Arturo Michelena, Tovar y Tovar, and Herrera Toro. Rojas won the scholarship awarded by the exhibition for his painting The Death of Girardot.1

After Rojas won the Exposition, he moved to Europe to train with Master Jean-Paul Laurens at the Academie Julian in Paris.1 The transition was difficult not only as an immigrant but also as a Latin American. Barbey explains, Rojas’s “immense affection for his mother and the preoccupations of his family’s well-being and financial stability would have naturally grown deeper with physical distance.”1 Aware of the socio-economic differences between the elites and lower classes—the latter his demographic—Rojas painted settings influenced by his family’s economic hardships but in the context of Latino culture. Rojas painted the Latino cultural experience of tuberculosis, a disease that ravaged the poor. He was influenced by the mortal impact of the disease in the nineteenth century and possibly by his father’s work as a physician. Beyond the medical aspects of the tuberculosis, Rojas depicted both the families affected by this uniformly fatal disease and the Catholic faith as critical elements in the confrontation among life, illness, and death.

Sick Violinist by Rojas
Fig. 3: The Sick Violinist by Rojas (1886) [public domain]

The Misery (1886) (Fig.2), The Sick Violinist (1886) (Fig.3), and The First and Last Communion (1888) (Fig.4) are three paintings in which the roles of Latin American families as providers of physical intimacy and of religion become apparent. Rojas’s Misery depicts the tragedy of a husband who is losing his wife to tuberculosis.10 The couple’s poverty can be presumed from the lack of clothing on the sick women, the ripped bed sheets covering her body, and the abject simplicity of the room. The husband’s physical proximity to his wife is a sign of Latin American familial intimacy. His is a faithful presence honoring the sacrament of the marriage despite fatigue and devastation.

First and Last Communion by Rojas
Fig. 4: The First and Last Communion by Rojas (1888) [public domain]

The Sick Violinist and The First and Last Communion also depict familial intimacy and add religious symbolism to Rojas’s artistic engagement with tuberculosis. The consumptive skin of the characters tells viewers that tuberculosis was the theme of these works. The presence of family in both paintings supports the importance the artist placed on familial support, de rigeuer for Latin Americans. Whether in the form of a symbol or in the administration of a sacrament, religion pervades Rojas’s rendering of approaching death.

In his painting The Sick Violinist a sunlit crucifix is hanging on the wall above the boy’s deathbed. The pale boy is in proximity to his family and possibly receiving a house call from a doctor preparing medicine. The environment is intimate and the religious message more pronounced.11 In The First and Last Communion, Rojas depicts a girl dying of consumption receiving the sacrament of communion from a priest in the intimacy of her bedroom. She is surrounded by her mother and two people who may be relatives. The importance Rojas attaches to religion is evident. The attention to religious attire adds a significant connotation as well. Barbay observes that the girl’s white communion mantle recalls images of the Virgin Mary and is even more vividly white than the clothing of the priest, altar boy, and tablecloth.1 A crucifix and candle also communicate a Catholic message.

 

Rojas: First and Foremost a Latin American Artist

The Final Moments of the Liberator by Toro
Fig. 5: The Final Moments of the Liberator by Antonio Herrera Toro (1883) [public domain]

Were there others signs in Latin American art that substantiate Rojas’ cultural affinity?  Rojas did not paint tuberculosis in a cultural vacuum. He was consistent with other Latin American artists, especially in regards to familial intimacy and visible expressions of faith during illness and death. His paintings evoke Latin American customs present in works of prominent Latino artists.

Tuberculosis by Fidelio Ponce de Leon
Fig. 6: Tuberculosis by Fidelio Ponce De Leon (1934) [public domain]

The Final Moments of the Liberator (1883) by Antonio Herrera Toro, a contemporary of Roja (Fig.5) depicts the deathbed of Simón Bolivar who succumbed to tuberculosis. Herrera Toro’s Bolivar has pale skin and is in close proximity to his relations and friends. The Catholic God is there as well. The priest is officiating Bolivar’s anointing before death. The painting on the wall depicts angels, and there is a crucifix and candle behind the priest.  Bolivar is probably the most recognized person in the history of Latin America, the father of nations who bequeathed the essential characteristics of Latin America culture to his descendants. In the early twentieth century, Cuban artist Fidelio Ponce de Leon, in his painting Tuberculosis (1934) (Fig.6), renders a small Cuban hospital or Sanatorio Habenero.12 His image includes monks wearing crucifixes as the patients look toward the viewer. These patients have long necks, an anatomical area affected by tuberculosis. There is a skull to signal death’s nearness.

 

Conclusion

Although Cristobal Rojas painted most of his opus in France, he was a Latin American artist. He faithfully captured Latino culture in his paintings–in a context surfeit with suffering and death from tuberculosis. His artwork communicated his love of families and commitment to the Catholic faith, two values that unmistakably identify him as a treasured Venezuelan artist.

 

References

  • Alfredo Boulton, Historia de la Pintura en Venezuela, Tomo II, Epoca Nacional (Caracas: Editorial Arte: 1968), 196.
  • Barbay, Vivian. “A Latin American in Paris: Cristobal Rojas (1858-1890) Between Academism and Modernism”, (Texas Christian University, 2011), pages 4, 5, 6, 2, 8, 12, 14.
  • Francisco Javier Duplá, Cristóbal Rojas (Caracas: Editora El Nacional, 2008), 24
  • CDC Strategic and Proactive Communications Brand, “Cultural Insights: Communicating with Hispanics/Latinos”, 2
  • Sigmond, Paul. Princetown University “Education and Religious Freedom in Latin America.” International Association for Religious Freedom.
  • “Venezuela, registros parroquiales y diocesanos, 1577-1995.” Database with images. FamilySearch. http://FamilySearch.org: accessed 2016. Parroquias Católicas, Venezuela (Catholic Church Parishes, Venezuela).
  • Carlo et al. University of Nebraska, “Culture-Related Strengths among Latin American Families: A Case Study of Brazil”, 2007, 341.
  • Hofstede, G. 1980. Culture’s Consequences. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  • Charlotte Shoup Olsen and Linda Skogrand. Cultural Implications and Guidelines for Extension and Family Life programming with Latino/Hispanic Audiences. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, 14 (1) 2009.
  • Rafael Páez, Cristóbal Rojas (Caracas: Edime, 1968), 214.
  • Brom, Robert Bishop of San Diego. Catholic Answers: Anointing of the Sick: (CCC1532). 2004.
  • Ortiz, Alberto. “Pintura e infección.” Tuberculosis, Fidelio Ponce de León Fundación IO. 2011.

 


 

GREGORY W. RUTECKI received his medical degree from the University of Illinois, Chicago in 1974. He completed Internal Medicine training at the Ohio State University Medical Center (1978) and his fellowship in Nephrology at the University of Minnesota (1980). After twelve years of private practice in general nephrology, he entered a teaching career at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, and the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. While at Northwestern, he was the E. Stephen Kurtides Chair of Medical Education. He now practices general internal medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

MARIA S. LANDAETA received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami in 2015 with double major in Public Relations and International/Global Studies in addition to a minor in Art History.

ALDO L. SCHENONE received his medical degree from the University of Carabobo in 2007. He practiced general medicine and taught biochemistry at the University of Carabobo before moving to the USA. He completed his Internal Medicine training at the Cleveland Clinic in 2015. He practices general internal medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. He is currently appointed as Chief Medical Resident in the Internal Medicine residency program at the Cleveland Clinic and Clinical Instructor in the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University.

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